Tigers, Tigers, Burning Bright: College Football Could Use a Few More Team Names

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Of the 126 schools that play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, 48 of them have the same team nickname as someone else. Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

The University of Alabama won the previous two national championships in college football, demonstrating that in this sport it is possible to repeat. In fact, in terms of mascot names at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, repeating is practically inevitable. And epidemic.

Of the 126 schools that play FBS football, 48 of them have the same team nickname as someone else. Tigers are rare in the wild, and yet five FBS teams identify themselves as such. You will also spot four Wildcats, three Cougars, and a pair of both Bobcats and Panthers. In addition to O-lines and D-lines, college football is brimming with felines.

How ’bout them dawgs, you ask? Well, three schools go by Bulldogs and another three call themselves the Huskies. There’s also a pair that refer to themselves as the Wolfpack, although one of them, Nevada, spells it “Wolf Pack,” but either way you spell it, you have a Wolfpack pack.

How zoologists, who have identified nearly 60,000 species of vertebrates, must shudder to think that our highest bastions of education recognize so few. Simply in terms of top-of-the-food-chain predators, whither the Sharks or the Lions? Hippopotamuses are responsible for more human deaths in South Africa than great white sharks, and yet neither are represented on an FBS helmet.

Elsewhere, it’s a veritable Noah’s Ark of fauna that do little to distinguish one school from another. Two-by-two come the Broncos, Bulls, Cardinals, and Eagles. Birds of a feather do flock together, as three universities are known as the Falcons and another three are called the Owls.

Gridirons are “fields of friendly strife” or so said General Douglas MacArthur, who actually played on the baseball team at West Point. Still, he had a point and that may be why two schools refer to themselves as Trojans and another pair refer to themselves as Spartans. The choice to align oneself with an iconic military force is not bizarre, but Trojans has always seemed a dubious choice: This is a unit best-known for suffering a devastating home loss at the expense of a trick play, after all.

There is room for two Trojans in college football, but no Romans or Mongols? They were two of the best road teams in the history of civilization.

You would hope for a wider spectrum of monikers, particularly from the color spectrum. The most popular prefix in college football nomenclature is Golden, as we have the Golden Bears, Golden Eagles, Golden Flashes, Golden Gophers, Golden Hurricane and Golden Panthers. For none of these schools, it should be noted, did wide receiver Golden Tate play, though he was a veritable one-man team while at Notre Dame a few years ago.

It’s a shame that so many schools share the same name, because at the FBS level, names that are not generic are often genius. Or, at the very least, sui generis. Tar Heels and Terrapins. Buckeyes and Boilermakers. Hoosiers and Hokies. Seminoles and Sooners. “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide,” sang Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (one of the more inspired band names of all time, by the way), “call me Deacon Blues.”

Deacon Blues, which is not to be confused with the Blue Devils of Duke or the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest. But who would confuse them? That’s the beauty of such memorable monikers. Say “Razorbacks” to even a casual sports fan and they probably identify that term with Arkansas. Say “Wildcats” and they may think of a lame Goldie Hawn film that, by the way, was centered on football.

All of which leads us back to Alabama and Steely Dan and the Crimson Tide, one of the better nicknames ever termed (and yes, to be fair, there was a film titled Crimson Tide as well, but only Denzel Washington’s fiercest fans think of that before they do the football team from Tuscaloosa). “They’ve got a name for winners in the world…” sang Fagen, although last Saturday Alabama lost in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.

As a result, because the Crimson Tide lost a game on a 100-yard missed field goal return on a play that began with 0:01 left in the contest, they will not be playing in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game on Saturday. The winner of that contest has advanced to the BCS National Championship Game in each of the past seven years. But this weekend, the Crimson Tide will stay home, having squandered an opportunity to add to the repetition.

Instead, the game will pit Auburn vs. Missouri: Tigers vs. Tigers. 

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